The History of the Horse Race

horse race

Horses have long been a part of human culture, not only pulling carriages and serving as warhorses but also, most famously, running in races. These contests pit the animals against each other to prove their fitness for service. On the track, humans perched on their backs compel them with whips to breakneck speeds in close quarters. The result is a sport that can only exist by force, as horses inherently understand self-preservation and would rather stop or rest if they are injured.

Nevertheless, this is a dangerous and often deadly sport for both horse and jockey. The stresses placed on these animals are immense, with too little chance for recovery between races, and the spiraling abuse of performance-enhancing drugs makes it even more so. The horses start their rigorous training at age two or three, which puts additional stress on immature bones and ligaments.

In the United States, organized racing began with British colonists in 1664, but it didn’t become the national pastime it is today until after the Civil War. The American classics—the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes—are run annually in May and June and set the standard for Thoroughbred excellence.

A slew of technological advances have impacted horse racing in recent years, with thermal imaging cameras and MRI scanners used to detect heat-related conditions or signs of injury post-race. In addition, 3D printing has helped make casts, splints and prosthetics for a number of horses and jockeys.

The sport’s entrenched masculinist culture is proving hard to change, though more and more female jockeys are becoming involved. The most famous is Australian jockey Winx, who this year became the first woman to complete a Triple Crown in 35 years.

During the earliest races, a match race was a wager between two or at most three competitors, with owners providing the purse and bettors placing the bets. The agreements were recorded by disinterested third parties, who came to be known as keepers of the match book. One such keeper at Newmarket, John Cheny, published An Historical List of All Matches Run (1729), the consolidated record that formed the basis for later forms of horse racing.

In the modern game, a major type of race is the handicap race, in which horses are assigned weights that they must carry during a race. The system is based on a horse’s age and class, with two-year-olds carrying less weight than older racers. There are also sex allowances, in which fillies and mares are allowed to carry slightly lighter weights than males, and allowances for certain types of races or surface types (dirt, turf, etc.). The American and English systems of handicapping have served as models for scores of international racing federations, with many countries having their own version of the Triple Crown series.